Who is my neighbor? That’s the question the legal expert on Jewish law asked in the gospel reading. Today we need to challenge our comfortable attitudes about the person who is our neighbor and our Christian response to that person. You see, it’s easy to love someone who is like us, who likes us, and who affirms our worth. We’ve set up many reasons for denying our Christian love and compassion to those who “don’t deserve”:
- to someone who has hurt us. It seems logically justified
- or to someone who believes differently than we do,
- or if we don’t what to get “involved” in helping someone else.
We’ve got a whole basketful of reasons to define and limit who our neighbor is, and to determine the kind of response that neighbor deserves. But love, divine love, expands our vision, extends our response, and increases our commitment to Christian living.
Who is my neighbor? Physicists tell us that there is an interaction of matter, however small, however molecular. If, for example, you would press a block of silver and a block of gold together for just a moment and then pulled them apart, there would be a small exchange of molecules of silver left on the gold bar and molecules of gold left on the silver bar. All of life is similarly interactive. We do not live in a vacuum. Those with whom we come in contact affect us and we affect them. It is my firm belief, having witnessed it in my own life over and over, that God sends into our lives people who are in need of our help and people who are there to help us. Who, then, is my neighbor?
Let’s review the gospel story. An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. He asks him a philosophical question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But Jesus did something every good teacher does; He responded with a question, “What is written in the Law; how do you read it?” Jesus knew this man already had the answer. The expert correctly answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” He correctly understood that the law demands total devotion to God and love for one’s neighbor. In the last part, there is an interesting qualifier for the love of one’s neighbor — as yourself. Who would we be willing to love as much as we love ourselves? After all, would we intentionally hurt ourselves? Willingly deny ourselves? Fail to do whoever we can to have as good a life as possible? With our closest friends, it may be possible to follow the law and love the neighbor as ourselves. But with certain people . . . What about the homophobe who lives next door? What about the Religious Righter Bible Thumper who is in our face?
Jesus responded by saying, “You’re right. Do this and live.”
The expert had another question for the Teacher, though. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Did he want to know or was he just wanting to limit the extent of the law’s demand and consequently limit his own responsibility?
We, unfortunately, do the same. Who is my neighbor? Our idea of who our neighbor is, is qualified with who we want for a neighbor. And we certainly don’t want certain types of people in our lives as neighbors.
Jesus answers the expert with a parable, a story with a point. Let’s look at the scene of this story. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous. Jerusalem is 2,300 feet above sea-level; the Dead Sea, near which Jericho stood, is 1,300 feet below sea-level. So in somewhat less than 20 miles, this road dropped 3,600 feet. The road was narrow, rocky, with sudden turnings making it ideal as a hunting ground for all sorts of rogues and robbers. Even in the fifth century, Jerome calls it the “Red and Bloody Way.” As late as the 19th century it was necessary to pay safety money to local sheiks before one could travel it. So when Jesus told this story, he was telling about the kind of thing that was constantly happening on the Jerusalem to Jericho road.
Let’s look at the characters of this parable. First the traveler. Our immediate response could be that he brought his plight upon himself by his reckless behavior. Anyone with good common sense would not have been traveling alone but would rather seek safety in numbers, but he didn’t, so did he get what he deserved?
There was the priest. Wouldn’t we normally expect a person in the service of God to be compassionate, to look to the needs of anyone and everyone, to somehow be more holy than the rest of us mere mortals who are not on so holy a plane? And yet this priest just paused long enough to look at him and go on his way. According to the Law, if the priest touched a dead man, he would be unclean for seven days. He couldn’t tell by just looking whether the man was dead or not. And rather than risk losing his turn of duty in the Temple, he set the duties of his office in the Temple above charity.
The Levite, a man who was charged with taking care of the details of service in the Temple, responded in much the same way as the priest. Bandits were in the habit of using decoys. One of them would act the part of a wounded man, and when some unsuspecting traveler stopped, others would rush and overpower him. The Levite’s motto was “Safety first.” He would take no risks to help anyone else.
Then there was the Samaritan. In Jesus’ time, the listeners to this story would immediately cast the Samaritan as the bad guy. Because of this story we have sanitized the reputation of Samaritan with the adjective “good” and so our emotional response to the Samaritan isn’t what it was in Jesus’ time. The Jews despised the Samaritans, called them bad names, avoided associating with them, believed they were heretics by virtue of their not being pure blooded Jews. The Samaritans were off-spring of the intermarriage of Jews and locals. So they were not racially pure. If you wanted to put someone down, you called them a Samaritan.
Now, can you think of anyone in our society who is despised, looked down upon and not included in society with the full rights and privileges of other citizens just because of the way they are born?
And so the priest and the Levite both pass on by the injured and barely alive traveler, but the Samaritan, the one most likely the villain rather than the hero of this story, stopped and took pity. The words “took pity” implies a deep feeling of sympathy, a striking response that stands in contrast not only to the attitude of feeling of hostility between Jew and Samaritan, but also to what he does. This pity is translated into sacrificial action. The Samaritan probably used pieces of his own clothing to make the bandages, he used his own wine as a disinfectant and his own oil as a soothing lotion. He put the man “on his own donkey” and paid the innkeeper out of his own pocket, with a promise to pay more if needed.
We note two things about the Samaritan:
- His credit was good! Clearly the innkeeper was prepared to trust him.
- He alone was prepared to help. Is it the creed we hold or the life we live by which we will be judged?
Who is my neighbor? Notice that the expert couldn’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” Prejudice is an awful curse.
Jesus’ answer involves three things:
- We must help even if we believe a person has brought his trouble upon himself
- Our help must be as wide as the love of God
- The help must consist of more than just feeling sorry. Compassion, to be real, must translate into deeds.
Gracious, you say. I can’t run around helping everybody I see who is in need. I don’t have the resources.
Here’s the good part. God has given us the ability to help and the means to help when we are prompted by the Holy Spirit. This help may be as simple as being pleasant to an unpleasant person. You know know contagious unhappiness can be. For our society to see the truth of GLBT Christianity, we must live it.
Let’s put to a very tough theoretical test this message of compassion and grace. Let’s say a man who has been in the public eye, more than once being a hate-monger and promoting attitudes that are not only despicable to our community, but also to every reasonable, thinking person — I’ll disguise his name, Ted Kelps* — were to fall into misfortune and you, alone, were the only way he could survive. A human response would be, good enough, he’s reaping what he has sown, it’s about time he got what he had coming to him.
But God’s grace, God’s love demands more of us. In ourselves we cannot love those who hate us, but in the final analysis, it is the love of God that has so changed our lives, so revolutionized our being that we have found deep in our soul the ability to be what God calls us to be. It’s the grace of God that empowers us to be Good Samaritans in a hostile world.
- To the expert in the law, the wounded man was a subject to discuss.
- To the robbers, the wounded man was someone to use and exploit.
- To the religious men, the wounded man was a problem to avoid.
- To the innkeeper, the wounded man was a customer to serve for a fee.
- To the Samaritan, the wounded man was a human being worth being cared for and loved.
- To Jesus, all of them and all of us were worth dying for.
God has called us into relationship so that our lives can reflect divine grace to others, even those who we find unlovely, unloved and unreasonable. God’s grace, the powerful, life changing, revolutionizing grace, takes our spirt and renews it. We in ourselves cannot do what Jesus told the expert to do — Do this and live — without first appropriating the transforming power of God’s grace.
I pray that we will ask God’s grace to touch our hearts and recognize as neighbors all those who God places in our paths. And then they will know we are Christians by our love.
* This is in reference to Topeka anti-gay activist, Fred Phelps, who, with his followers, pickets gay funerals, etc.